Clint Eastwood's new film is a character study of a man of violence, a subject the star of Dirty Harry and director of Unforgiven knows well. The script, by Jason Hall, is based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, a Texan sharpshooter who had a record 160 confirmed kills in Iraq over four deployments between 2003 and 2009. While the movie is narrow, it has a deep, melancholic resonance.
As always, it's important to separate Eastwood, the political eccentric, who cross-examined an imaginary President Barack Obama on an empty chair at the Republican Party convention in 2012 from Eastwood, the artist, whose concise movies explore anguished moral dilemmas. The film, which has earned six Oscar nominations, offers enough emphasis on "God, country, family" to please Eastwood's fellow Republicans, but it also probes the limitations of the search for glory and the addiction to battle.
The film opens on a Fallujah rooftop, where Kyle (a seriously bulked-up Bradley Cooper) is watching a woman and a boy through his rifle scope. The woman hands something to the boy.
In a packed 20-minute flashback, we jump to young Kyle hunting with his dad in Texas, and sitting at the family's dinner table, where his father is outlining his version of the social contract: There are three types of people: sheep, wolves and guard dogs, he says. Only the last category has honour.
After a brief stint as a rodeo cowboy, Chris decides to join the Navy SEALs. On a night off from the sadistically intense training, he goes to a bar and picks up his future wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), where after a testy exchange, they fall in love. Sept. 11 happens, and the candles on the wedding cake are barely blown out when he and his buddies are headed to Iraq.
Back on the rooftop in Fallujah, Kyle takes his two kill shots and we learn two things; he's highly focused and he doesn't second-guess himself. As he racks up the kills, he earns the nickname "the Legend". The Iraqi scenes become longer and more intense, often witnessed through the narrow perspective of Kyle's rifle scope. Other characters, including Kyle's brother Jeff, who joins up as a marine and becomes quickly disillusioned, are barely sketched in. The Iraqis are "savages" and their country is a place of "evil."
The few challenges to his mindset come from a religious fellow-soldier, or Taya, who increasingly finds herself estranged from his obsessions: "Even when you're here, you're not here," she complains. Later, when a fellow-soldier tells him the Iraqi insurgents have placed a bounty on his head, he cracks, "Don't tell my wife about it."
Kyle's final tour of Iraq involves a rival sniper rumoured to be a Syrian Olympic marksman who is picking off American workers in Sadr City. The encounter culminates in an extended firefight intensified by a sandstorm, an apt representation of the physical and moral chaos around him.
Cooper, in a turnaround from his jittery manic turns in American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook, is convincing as an unreconstructed macho man in psychological lockdown. That leaves most of the overt emotional expression in the movie to Miller, and she does what she can with the relatively brief screen time she has.
Plans for a movie were already in the works in 2013 when Chris Kyle's life ended at the age of 38 in a shocking tragedy. The conclusion is a kind of tactful gut punch in the film, that retrospectively alters the meaning of what we have seen. American Sniper romanticizes Kyle, whose bestselling memoir, which put him on talk-show appearances, included boastful stories of dubious authenticity. What remains is distilled and dramatized, a story of loss, the story of the universal soldier.